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Types of Wood for Woodworking: A Guide to Furniture Woods

Solid wood

That is, wood cut into boards from the trunk of the tree — makes up most of the wood in a piece of furniture. The type of wood you choose determines the beauty and strength of the piece. Many varieties of wood are available and each has its own properties. The following sections introduce you to the most common types of soft- and hardwoods.

Sampling some softwoods

Softwoods aren’t weaker than hardwoods. Softwoods come from coniferous trees such as cedar, fir and pine. They tend to be somewhat yellow or reddish in appearance. Because most coniferous trees grow fast and straight, softwoods are generally less expensive than hardwoods.

It’s also relatively easy to find sustainably grown softwoods (woods grown on tree farms to ensure a endless supply of wood); this means you’re not contributing to the deforestation of the world and will always have a supply of wood for your projects.

Following is a list of common softwood varieties and their characteristics.

Cedar

The most common type of cedar is the western red variety. Western red cedar, as its name implies, has a reddish color to it. This type of wood is relatively soft (1 on a scale of 1 to 4), has a straight grain, and has a slightly aromatic smell. Western Red cedar is mostly used for outdoor projects such as furniture, decks, and building exteriors because it can handle moist environments without rotting. Western red cedar is moderately priced and can be found at most home centers.

Fir

Often referred to as Douglas Fir, this wood is very soft, has a straight, pronounced grain, and has a reddish brown tint to it. Fir is most often used for building; however, it’s inexpensive and can be used for some furniture-making as well. It doesn’t have the most interesting grain pattern and doesn’t take stain very well, so it’s best to use it only when you intend to paint the finished product. Douglas fir is pretty hard, rating 4 on a scale of 1 to 4.

This wood is worth mentioning because it is very common at your local home center and it’s so inexpensive you’ll probably be tempted to make something with it.

Pine

Pine comes in several varieties, including Ponderosa, Sugar, White, and Yellow, and all of them make great furniture. In some areas of the country (especially southwest United States), pine is the wood to use. Pine is very easy to work with and, because most varieties are relatively soft, it lends itself to carving.

Pine generally takes stain very well (as long as you seal the wood first), although Ponderosa pine tends to ooze sap, so be careful when using this stuff. Pine is available from most home centers, but it’s often of a lesser grade than what you can find at a decent lumberyard.

Redwood

Like cedar, redwood is used mostly for outdoor projects because of its resistance to moisture. Redwood (California redwood) is fairly soft and has a straight grain. As its name suggests, it has a reddish tint to it. Redwood is easy to work with, is relatively soft (2 on a scale of 1 to 4), and is moderately priced. You can find redwood at your local home center.

Honing in on hardwoods

 Most woodworkers love to work with hardwoods. The variety of colors, textures, and grain patterns makes for some beautiful and interesting-looking furniture. The downside to hardwoods is their price. Some of the more exotic species can be too expensive to use for anything more than an accent.

Some hardwoods are becoming very hard to find and are being harvested without concern to their eventual extinction (Brazilian rosewood comes to mind). Not only is this hard on the environment, it drives the price of the wood so high that making furniture out of it is out of the question for most woodworkers. If you can, try to buy wood from a sustainable forest (commercial tree farms that ensure the supply of the wood). Check out the National Hardwood Lumber Association or SmartWood.com for ways to support sustainable forestry.

Following is a list of common hardwoods and their characteristics.

Ash

Ash is a white-to-pale-brown colored wood with a straight grain. It’s pretty easy to work with (hardness of 4 on a scale of 1 to 5) and takes stain quite nicely, but ash is getting harder and harder to find. You won’t find ash at your local home center — it’s only available from larger lumberyards. Ash is a good substitute for white oak.

Birch

Birch comes in two varieties: yellow and white. Yellow birch is a pale yellow-to-white wood with reddish-brown heartwood, whereas white birch has a whiter color that resembles maple. Both types of birch have a hardness of 4 on a scale of 1 to 5. Birch is readily available and less expensive than many other hardwoods. You can find birch at many home centers, although the selection is better at a lumberyard.

Birch is stable and easy to work with. However, it’s hard to stain because it can get blotchy, so you might prefer to paint anything that you make with birch.

Cherry

Cherry is a very popular and all-around great wood; easy to work with, stains and finishes well with just oil, and ages beautifully. Cherry’s heartwood has a reddish-brown color to it and the sapwood is almost white. Cherry has a hardness of 2 on a scale of 1 to 5. This is a very common wood for furniture-making and is available from sustainably-grown forests. You won’t find cherry at your local home center, so a trip to the lumberyard is necessary if you want to use it. Because it’s in demand, cherry is getting somewhat expensive compared to other domestic hardwoods, such as oak and maple.

Mahogany
One of the great furniture woods, mahogany (also called Honduran mahogany) has a reddish-brown-to-deep-red tint, a straight grain, medium texture, and a hardness of around 2 on a scale of 1 to 5. It takes stain very well and looks great with just a coat (or 10) of oil.

The only drawback is that mahogany isn’t being grown in sustainable forests (not a big deal unless you want to ensure that it’ll be around forever). Forget going to your home center to get some — the only place to find mahogany is a decent lumberyard (and it’ll cost you).

Maple

Maple comes in two varieties: hard and soft. Both varieties are harder than many other woods; hard maple is so hard (a 5 on a scale of 1 to 5) that it’s difficult to work with. Soft maple, on the other hand, is relatively easy to work with. Because of their fine, straight grain, both varieties are more stable than many other woods. They also tend to be less expensive than other hardwoods. You won’t find maple at your local home center, but most lumberyards have a good selection of it.

Oak

Oak is one of the most used woods for furniture. Available in two varieties — red and white — oak is strong (hardness of about 4 on a scale of 1 to 5) and easy to work with. White oak is preferred for furniture-making because it has a more attractive figure than red oak (white oak is also resistant to moisture and can be used on outdoor furniture).

This is one wood that can be found quarter-sawn (the most stable cutting option available). In fact, quarter-sawn white oak is less expensive than some other hardwoods like cherry, for instance. The grain has a beautiful “ray flake” pattern to it. Red oak can be found at most home centers, but if you want white oak, make a trip to the lumberyard.

Poplar

Poplar is one of the less expensive hardwoods. It’s also fairly soft (1 in hardness on a scale of 1 to 5), which makes it easy to work with. Poplar has a white color with some green or brown streaks in the heartwood. Because poplar is not the most beautiful wood, it’s rarely used in fine furniture and if it is, it’s almost always painted. Poplar can be a good choice for drawers (where it won’t be seen) because it is stable and inexpensive. You can find poplar at larger home centers, but a lumberyard will have a better selection.

Teak

Teak is becoming rarer as the days go on, but it is the staple for fine outdoor furniture. Teak is highly weather-resistant and beautiful (not to mention expensive — can you believe almost $24 a board foot?). Teak has an oily feel and a golden-brown color. It rates a 3 on a scale of 1 to 5 for hardness and is only available from larger lumberyards and specialty suppliers.

 

Walnut

With a hardness of about 4 on a 1 to 5 scale, walnut is a rich brown wood that’s easy to work with. Unfortunately, walnut is somewhat expensive (usually around $8 a board foot) and finding large boards for big projects is getting difficult. In spite of this, walnut is still a great wood to work with and lends itself nicely for use as accents and inlays to dress up a project. You won’t find walnut at your local home center and you may need to special order it from a lumberyard if you want a large quantity.

 
 
A Guide to Furniture Woods

Almost any type of wood could be used to build furniture, but some woods have always been favored for their beauty, durability, and workability. Before 1900, most furniture was made with these woods: walnut, oak, mahogany, rosewood, fruitwoods, and rare wood veneers and inlays were in common use. American Colonial furniture, dependent on local availability, was made with maple, oak, walnut, birch, and cherry, as well as pine. The preferred furniture woods were readily available, so less attractive or durable woods were used only for hidden parts inside a piece. For this reason, pre-1900 furniture is almost always worth restoring.

As these preferred woods have become scarcer and more expensive, furniture has been made with more abundant woods; the traditional favorites have become rare. Today, most furniture is made with ash, pine, gum, and poplar; pine, fir, and other inexpensive woods are used for hidden parts. The rare woods are used only for very good furniture, and they’re often used in combination with the less expensive woods.

Being able to identify the type of wood used for your furniture can help you determine its real value. Wood identification can sometimes be the deciding factor when you aren’t sure if a piece is worth refinishing or if it should be thrown away. There’s a good chance that a beat-up old dresser, for instance, was built with what today is considered a rare wood. In this article, we’ll show you how to examine a piece of furniture and what details or identifying marks to look for to easily identify the type of wood used to create it. It will be helpful to know the basic characteristics in all woods, such as hardness, grains, and color.

Wood Characteristics

Hardness

The simplest way to describe a wood is to say it’s a hardwood or a softwood, but this description can be deceptive: not all hardwoods are hard, and not all softwoods are soft. The hard/soft classification is a botanical one — hardwoods are flowering trees; softwoods are conifers. Although most hardwoods are harder than most softwoods, there are exceptions.
In general, hardwoods are more valuable than softwoods, because the wood is scarcer. But this isn’t always the case — gum, for instance, is a hardwood that competes in price with softwoods. A more practical way to identify wood is by its grain and color.

Wood grain and color

The cell structure of a tree, different for each species, determines its grain. Hardwoods have tubular cells called vessels, visible as pores in the wood. If the cells are large, the texture of the wood is slightly rough, or open; a filler may be needed to smooth the surface. If the cells are small, the texture is smooth; these woods, described as close-grained, don’t require filling. Oak, walnut, ash, mahogany, rosewood, and teak are all open-grained woods; beech, birch, maple, cherry, satinwood, gum, and poplar are close-grained. Softwoods don’t have vessel cells, but for all practical purposes can be considered close-grained.

All trees have annual growth rings, made up of the cells formed during each year’s growing season. The types and arrangement of the cells determine how the wood looks. There are woods with subdued and with clearly defined grains; there are straight grains, stripes, swirls, waves or curls, ripples, eyes, and mottled effects. There are colors from white and pale yellow through red, purple, and black. Every species has its own particular grain and color, and although they vary from tree to tree, these characteristics can almost always be used to identify the wood.

Furniture woods are chosen and valued for the character of their grain and color. Hardwoods usually have a richer and finer-textured grain than softwoods, but there are rich grains of all colors and patterns. Woods with very distinctive patterns are usually more valuable than woods with subdued or indistinct patterns, and the weaker-grained woods are often stained to give them character. This is why the old finish must be completely removed before you can tell for sure what wood a piece of furniture is made of.

How to Assess Wood

How do you begin to identify the type of wood used for your furniture? This may seem difficult at first, but you’ll find it easier as you gain experience. With practice, you may be able to recognize various woods by smell and touch as well as by color and grain. You should ask yourself some key questions:

Consider the piece of furniture itself.

About how old is it, and what style is it? Some types of furniture are made with specific woods — ash, for instance, is widely used in bentwoods — and most new furniture is made with woods not used for older furniture.

Look at the color

Although color can vary considerably from tree to tree, its tone is fairly constant within a species; the color intensity may change, but not the quality. Some woods have very distinctive color characteristics — poplar, for instance, is the only wood with a green tinge to it, and rosewood can be dark purple.

Finally, look at the grain.

Is the wood open- or close-grained? Are the pores evenly distributed, or are they concentrated at the growth rings? Is the grain straight or wavy, mottled or swirled?

Now that you have closely looked at your furniture, you might notice it is made with veneer (thin layers of wood) or a combination of woods. Both are common practices for furniture building.

Veneers and Inlays

Because rare woods are scarce, and because they’ve always been more expensive than other woods, many types of furniture, both new and old, are made with veneer, a thin layer of wood glued to a base of less expensive wood or plywood. In old furniture, veneers and inlays of rare woods were often used to form designs or special effects; highly figured burl woods and other exotic woods were especially prized. In modern furniture, veneers are used primarily where solid wood is unavailable or too expensive.

Many different woods are used for veneers and inlays. Some veneers are cut from the crotch or butt of a tree, where the grain is more interesting; some are cut at an angle to produce a particular pattern. Some highly prized grain patterns, such as the bird’s-eye figure in maple and the burl patterns, result from irregular growth. Some veneer woods, such as the burl woods, are not usable for solid construction because the wood isn’t strong enough. Ebony, in contrast, is veneered because it’s much too heavy to be used alone.

Veneers are fragile, and they can be damaged by refinishing techniques. Veneers are common in modern furniture construction, so take a good look at your furniture before you start to work on it. Any highly figured wood is probably a veneer.

It isn’t always obvious what’s veneered and what’s not. Sometimes the veneer is visible at the edge of the wood surface, a thin layer glued over the base wood. If you can’t see a joint at the edge, look at an unfinished area under the piece of furniture. If the unfinished wood looks the same as the finished surface, the piece of furniture is probably solid wood. If there’s a considerable difference, it’s probably veneered.

Wood combinations

Another consideration is that many types of modern furniture are made with two or more kinds of wood, to keep the cost down. Rare woods are used where appearance is important, such as table-tops; the more common woods are used for less conspicuous structural pieces, such as table and chair legs. This multiple-wood construction isn’t always easy to see until the old finish is removed — a table you think is walnut, for example, may turn out to have gum legs, stained to match.

Furniture made with more than one wood eventually needs special refinishing treatment. If you find yourself with a multiple-wood piece, you may have to stain and finish the common wood again to match the wood of the most conspicuous surface.

Once you are familiar with the color, grain, and construction style of your furniture, you can use that information to determine the specific kind of wood or woods used. Check out the next section for tips on how to easily identify common furniture woods.

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